The dedication of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster reads: ‘for my brother John and everyone who works the shift nobody wants.’ This is a telling phrase, as this novella (small at only 146 pages) tells the story of the final day and night of a doomed Red Lobster restaurant in New Britain, CT, that has not made consistent numbers and is being closed by parent company Darden.
Manny DeLeon is the manager of this ill-fated Red Lobster, and the story begins with his arrival on a late-December morning - a morning that finds them four shopping days before Christmas and at the early stages of a Nor’easter blizzard (soon to be named Winter Storm Adrian). The restaurant is situated at a corner of an outdated shopping mall, and Manny is faced with going through the motions as manager one more time. He knows that the following Monday he will be transferred to another restaurant in the Darden chain – The Olive Garden – as he begins his new job as an assistant manager for its Bristol location, a mere 15 minutes from his Red Lobster.
In addition to the oncoming winter storm, Manny must face the uncertainty surrounding the staff for the last day at Red Lobster. He was only able to bring four members of this Red Lobster team with him to the new opportunity at The Olive Garden - a decision that presents little incentive for those not chosen to even bother showing up for their last shift here. As expected, there are a handful of no-shows for the last day – including one of those employees tapped for transfer, Warren. Manny must make do with a skeleton crew of employees – both in front and back of the house – as well as an unpredictable number of customers brave enough to weather the winter storm for a last meal at their local Red Lobster.
Stewart O’Nan’s novel is a nice mixture of futility and sentimentality. Many of the experiences that are described in Last Night at the Lobster will ring true for anyone who has worked in the service industry or who has had the opportunity to watch the movie Waiting from 2005, an on-the-mark comic look at a day in the life of a franchise restaurant crew. The novel is seen from Manny DeLeon’s point of view, and his interactions with his unmotivated staff could easily resemble any apathetic workplace environment. He has the highly skilled and professional head chef, Ty, a few veteran servers, and one employee, Jacquie, who he recently had a bad break-up with.
The reader sympathizes with Manny as he deals with his disinterested crew and the regular bunch of customers, who range from an overly needy office party to seniors who tip low and argue over expired coupons to the mothers with unruly children who don’t appreciate the inattentive service they receive. As Manny puts it when he is forced to bend over backwards to please the large office party group, “…it’s just the cost of being the boss.” O’Nan infuses every page with a sense of futility and desperation – especially for Manny, who has an ongoing inner monologue questioning why he gets up every day and does what he does for low wages and limited respect.
O’Nan is a master of depicting small-town interactions, and you don’t have to be from New England to understand these very real characters. He did this best with his brilliant novel Snow Angels, which was made into a powerful and much overlooked independent film last year starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. O’Nan has become better known for his recent teaming with Stephen King on a nonfiction work about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Last Night at the Lobster may be a quick read, but you will definitely leave it feeling like you worked this final shift right along with Manny and his crew.